Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Wednesday Horror: Hereditary

Film: Hereditary
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I admit that sometimes I have trouble getting through a movie on a first try. Hereditary was that movie for me until a few days ago. It wasn’t fear, but a realization of a particular scene that I knew was coming up. Suffice it to say that I have real issues with cruelty happening to children in a lot of films. I don’t know if this is simple empathy or because I am a parent, but when I know something terrible is going to happen to a child, I frequently balk.

However, I recently had the house to myself, and knowing that Hereditary is the sort of film that would force me to kick the rest of my family out of the living room for a couple of hours, I decided it was time to gut through the scene in question and watch the film. Frankly, I’m glad I did. It’s not a movie I would really want to watch again in the near future, but it’s strangely powerful and is an acting class from the entire cast, particularly Toni Collette. I say this with the caveat that I am a big Toni Collette fan.

I’m honestly not sure how to even explain Hereditary, but I’ll try. Annie Graham (Collette) is an artist who creates miniatures, often building scenes of traumatic or important events in her life. She lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), stoner son Peter (Alex Wolff), and odd daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Milly is a disconcerting presence in the film because of her odd physical appearance. Most of this is clearly cosmetic, but some comes from the fact that Milly Shapiro has cleidocranial dysplasia, which affects the formation of bones and teeth (think the kid from Stranger Things). This is greatly amplified by the film to give her an otherworldly appearance and to almost age her in an odd way.

As the film starts, Annie’s mother has just died. The rest of the family reacts oddly, and Charlie is in a unique position. Her mother tells her that she was clearly her grandmother’s favorite of anyone, but Charlie is convinced that her grandmother wanted her to be a boy. Annie works through her grief at a support group where she reveals the extensive history of mental illness in her family. Meanwhile, Charlie’s oddness is revealed to be oddly morbid. When a bird strikes a window in her classroom, Charlie steals the teacher’s scissors and cuts off the bird’s head. Meanwhile, the grave of Annie’s mother has been desecrated.

And then we get the part I couldn’t get past the first time. Peter goes to a party and lies to his mother about it being a school event. She forces him to take Charlie, who, unsupervised, eats something that contains peanuts, to which she is allergic. Suffering an anaphylactic reaction, Peter rushes her to a hospital, but is forced to swerve to avoid a deer. This happens while Charlie is leaning out of the window, trying to get air, and she is decapitated when her head strikes a post on the side of the road.

And, well, now shit gets really weird. Annie makes a new friend at her grief support group. An older woman named Joan (Anne Dowd) claims that she lost a grandson but has contacted him through a medium, and teaches Annie to do the same. While her family starts to splinter from the strain, Annie forces Steve and Peter to assist her in a sĂ©ance that proves to be quite successful. Annie begins to see new pictures being added in Charlie’s sketchbook, and Peter is constantly haunted by the presence of his sister.

I’m not going to go into a great deal more in terms of the plot here, because there’s a lot that unfolds slowly but inexorably as Hereditary continues. I don’t want to spoil that for anyone who hasn’t seen it, because, while in retrospect so much of it seems like a natural progression, it is terrible and furious in the telling.

There’s a lot to unpack here. At the very least, Hereditary is evidence of just how biased Oscar is against horror movies in general. Toni Collette was snubbed as hard as anyone I have seen in the entire time I have been doing this blog. Now, as I said above, I am a huge fan of Toni Collette so this is coming from a place of bias, but she is seriously fantastic in every frame. The same is true of Milly Shapiro, who is off-putting in the best way possible. This is a kid with serious talent—she already has a Tony and a Grammy nomination, and she claims to love horror movies, so I can’t wait to see where she goes. This says nothing of the presence of Alex Wolff, who spends to movie trying to make sense of everything around him and slowly declining into madness. I like Gabriel Byrne, too, but he’s not given a great deal to do here.

In all honesty, this is a hard movie to watch, but a great one. It’s upsetting and disturbing in the best ways, but it’s not one I think I want to watch again for some time.

Why to watch Hereditary: Toni Collette is the biggest Oscar snub in recent memory.
Why not to watch: This defines a “hard sit.”


  1. I appreciated the performances, but found the film overlong and ultimately a bit of a waste. It took too long to get to any point, and by the time it got there all the tension and drama had seeped out and the revelations were rushed, muddled and borderline irrelevant. Promising ideas, poorly executed.

    1. We'll disagree on this. I think it's as good a film for the genre as I've seen in a long time.

      And holy shit, that ending!

    2. Unfortunately for me, by the time the ending rolled around I was much more bored than scared. And I just found it so much artistic mumbo jumbo crammed into the final 10 minutes. I prefer my horror to explain/reveal itself in tasty morsels throughout the film.

    3. That's fair. If everyone had the same tastes, we'd just have the same movies over and over.

  2. Just for the official record, I'd like to make special mention of the marketing for this film and how well done it was. The way the trailer is cut together, as well as most of the marketing featuring Charlie extensively, it all makes it seem like Charlie is the focal character for the film's supernatural elements and has a role to play for the entire film... so when most of the people, myself included, went to the theater to see this, and THAT scene happened; we were all as stunned and gutted as Peter was just sitting in the car during that scene. It was an absolute sledgehammer moment, and the whole rest of the film became a study of how overwhelming the concepts of grief and guilt can be in a family setting, for Annie and Peter respectively (at least, until the third act and the real happenings of the film start to come to light). The scene with the family at the table where Peter keeps prodding Annie until she finally explodes at him over the whole thing is such an amazing scene because of this, not to mention the masterclass Toni Collette put on during that section - and yes, she was the most egregious Oscar snub of the year in just about everyone's reckoning. I think I mentioned in your review of First Reformed that the Letterboxd community's semi-official Oscars had voted Ethan Hawke for Best Actor; I'll give you three guesses who they voted as Best Actress.

    Also, extra kudos to Ari Aster; every technical aspect of this film is just so honed, with so much detail put into every scene, that this becomes a film that begs to be studied with several viewings instead of merely watching it multiple times. I for one am certainly looking forward to Midsommar in a month or so.

    1. I think I pretty much agree with everything you've said here. There's a lot that is done right here, and the marketing helped a great deal.

      I'm a fan of Toni Collette and like pretty much everything I've seen her in. She's never been better than she was here.